When I became pregnant with my first child after years of trying and lots of prayers, I had a picture in mind of how the birth would go. My water would break, and my husband and I would rush to the hospital. I would call my parents on the way to share the joyous news and they would come to meet their first grandchild, bringing along gifts and balloons. It would be a celebration.
But life has a way of pulling the rug out from under you sometimes. At 24 weeks gestation, before I had even developed a noticeable baby bump, I went into labor. There was no warning. I had been the doctor for a check-up four days before, and I appeared to be having a healthy pregnancy. So, when the labor started I mistook the cramping feeling for gas pains. It was a mild discomfort, nothing at all like the contractions I had read about.
Hours later, the pain intensified all at once, going from a twinge to torture in seconds. My body broke out in goosebumps and I doubled over in pain. My husband and I went to the hospital immediately. But it was too late. I was dilated three centimeters and my contractions were coming every four minutes. The doctor tried to stop it, but my daughter was born three hours later, far too soon.
There were so many emotions that night, as I got my first glimpse of this unbelievably tiny human I already loved so much. I was terrified, hopeful, shocked, and guilty.
Some people couldn’t understand my guilt. To my knowledge, I hadn’t actually done anything wrong. I was a healthy non-smoker in my late twenties who had good prenatal care. The doctor didn’t know why this had happened, so how could I shoulder the blame?
All those words made sense. The logic was there, but it couldn’t change how I felt. Women have been having babies since the beginning of mankind. Billions of people have done this. Yet, I failed. My body betrayed me and, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was somehow my fault. If not something I had done wrong during pregnancy, then perhaps some sick sort of karma. Was my child being punished for some character flaw I possessed? Had I pushed myself too hard at work? Could this have been stopped if I had come to the hospital sooner?
So many questions and no real answers.
I had a wonderful and strong support system during my daughter’s 96-day NICU stay. My family, my husband, and plenty of family friends made themselves available to help in any way possible. This was great, but no one could truly understand the guilt or why I couldn’t overcome it. I heard a lot the same phrases over and over.
“You did nothing wrong.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“You can’t blame yourself.”
“Don’t feel guilty.”
That last one was my husband’s typical response. Bless his heart, he was trying to be helpful, but even he couldn’t understand. I didn’t want the heavy burden of guilt, but I also couldn’t just stop the feeling. I felt that no one could understand.
The feeling of my empty womb while I stood beside the incubator my daughter was now living in, with a tube shoved down her throat because she couldn’t breathe on her own yet, was unique to me. I was meant to be carrying her, my body should have been a safe place for her to grow. Instead, it had expelled her and now she was forced to endure pain.
I imagined that the world was cold and bright to her, and that the surprise I felt when she was born so early was nothing compared to her shock at suddenly being thrust into this life before she was even close to ready. In my heart, I felt that I was responsible for this.
Leaving her in the hospital didn’t help these feelings. The most unnatural, gut-wrenching experience I’ve ever had was leaving my precious child behind when I went home. Life couldn’t just continue normally while she fought to survive.
I wanted to be at the hospital constantly. I felt that she needed me near and it was the least I could do for her. Being there, even if I was just sitting next to the incubator while she slept, was the only thing I found that relieved some of these guilty feelings.
I couldn’t accurately explain this to anyone. I would only get more positive responses about my own worth that were meant to make me feel better. While I appreciated the love behind those attempted affirmations, they weren’t what I needed. I needed to take care of my child in any way that I could. I needed to hold her at every opportunity because I believed the skin-to-skin contact helped her. I wanted her to learn to breathe by laying against my chest and feeling the steady rhythm of my own inhales and exhales. I wanted her to see me there every day and it didn’t matter that she wouldn’t remember it. In my mind, I was showing her that I was her mother, not the nurses, doctors, or physical therapists. Me.
I think I was trying to redeem myself.
Somewhere along the way, I guess I succeeded. I’m not sure when it happened, but eventually I realized that the negative, self-blaming thoughts that had weighed on my mind were fading. I was slowly moving past it as my baby got healthier. I just needed to do what felt right to me and focus on my child. Some people tried to get me to spend less time in the hospital, thinking it was unhealthy for me. But they were wrong. The NICU wasn’t bad for me or my baby.
It healed us both.
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